When four-time Olympic gold medal winner Sanya Richards-Ross said, “Failure I can live with; not trying is what I can’t handle”, she really meant it. Despite her extraordinary sporting CV, the athletics star knows exactly what she is talking about, having gone through enough failure and heartache to sink all but the very strongest.
“There are no successful people on the planet who have not experienced failure,” Richards-Ross explained. “I always tell young people that failure is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for success. I say, ‘Hey, I failed on the biggest stage, but I came back and then victory was that much sweeter’.”
For the US athlete, that failure came at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008. Already a 4x400m relay gold medallist from Athens four years earlier, Richards-Ross went to Beijing as the women’s undisputed world no.1 400m runner. Unbeaten all year, the then 23-year-old was a nailed-on certainty for individual gold. But, having run the fastest time in qualification, Richards-Ross got chased down the home straight in the final and overtaken by both Great Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaica’s Shericka Williams.
Richards-Ross was carrying a heart-breaking, secret burden, having had an abortion just days before travelling to China.
“It was really, really, really hard,” Richards-Ross recalled. “For me it was more of a spiritual thing than physical because I never wanted to be in a position to have an abortion. It was more the emotional wear on me than the physical. I was still physically prepared to run fast.”
The fact that she told no one – even her coach was in the dark – added to the incredible weight on her shoulders. But in the months after Beijing, Richards-Ross returned to the mantra her father had first taught her in high school, and the athlete in her resolved to “keep trying”.
“I remember in 2009 saying, ‘You know what? I am just going to start having fun, I am not going to put so much pressure on myself, I am not going to try and control everything’,” she said. “And I had a phenomenal 2009 season with that mentality.”
Phenomenal is the right word. After winning practically everything in sight, Richards-Ross went to Berlin, Germany, for the 2009 World Athletics Championships in a familiar position: favourite for the gold medal. This time, she smashed it, winning in 49.00 seconds.
“I say, ‘fail forwards’. Yes, you are going to fail, but what can you learn from it that is going to push you one step closer to your goal?” Richards-Ross said. “It is about not letting failure stop you in your tracks and stop you achieving your goals. When you are doing well you never adjust or revaluate, most of the time you don’t get better. It is when you fail it’s like, ‘OK, what can I be doing differently to get to the next level?’.”
Olympic redemption came in 2012 at the London Games when Richards-Ross, trying again, faced down her demons.
“People watch the video and it wasn’t one of my best races,” she laughed. I was just like, ‘I am going to win, I am not going to try and do anything special’. I remember I had a big pause at the end and people were asking why did I take so long to celebrate, and for me it was because Christine [Ohuruogu] was coming back at me and the crowd got really loud, and I closed my eyes when I crossed the line. So even though I was pretty sure I had won, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure.”
She had won, and she finally got to celebrate the ultimate title in her sport.
Despite dealing with an ongoing, serious foot injury throughout the final few years of her career, Richards-Ross was never going to leave the sport without a fight and was focused on defending her Olympic title. You will not be surprised to hear that she did everything possible to be on the start line in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, despite her increasing physical limitations.
“I had a third surgery, I trained alongside my physio so I could be getting treatment every day while I was working out, I did it all,” Richards-Ross said with a smile. “I ran around the track at the Olympic trials but I wasn’t able to finish the race and I hung my head low for a minute, and then this woman shouted out, ‘We love you, Sanya’ and it brought me back to the moment and I was, ‘Oh my God, this might be the last race of my career’ and so I gave everything I had to finish.”
She received a standing ovation from everyone at the track that day as she smiled through the pain of a career-ending tear to her right hamstring. And that, despite all the medals, is the moment that sticks with her.
“Even though I had so many experiences throughout my career, that race, even though I didn’t win, that depicts that saying for me,” she said. “I could live with the fact I didn’t make it because I tried, I gave everything I had.”